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In the Fifth Millennium, the silver beaches of the planet Nublis' magnificent Northern Shore remained as inviolate as they'd been in the First.
This strand was no exception.
Prince Cassius de Raven circled for a landing and set his black and red flyer on the oceanfront mansion's emerald lawn as lightly as a feather. He hit the switches prior to opening the door and the electric motors whispered into silence.
After the hustle and bustle of the city, the surf's booming into the wild stillness was a literal balm to his soul. As he swung his lanky form down from the flyer, two small dogs jumped up and down barking a welcome and his waiting hostess offered him her cheek to kiss.
He gave her a friendly squeeze and she cocked a delicate eyebrow at him. "What, no security?"
"I'm the bastard, remember? It's my lordly brother who has to worry about things like that. Where's His Nibs this morning?"
"Aaron came in late from some inspection tour or other. He's still sleeping."
Always beautiful, Galia Alazne Fortier was one of those fortunate women on whom pregnancy sat like a well-worn glove. Her copper hair was brightness itself, her skin pure mother-of-pearl, and her emerald eyes an ocean depth at least.
If Cassius had any doubts that his imperial brother's former mistress had found safe harbor with her fifty-year-old captain, the expression in them put it to rest. As they began walking toward the house, he looked her up and down appreciatively and kept his tone deliberately light. "Aaron's taken to his new duties, I gather, and I assume the pair of you arestill lovebirds."
"He's taken to this job like a duck to water and says he feels as if he's been doing it forever. He's a natural-born administrator but at home we're just a couple of old shoes. It's only been seven months since we moved here but it seems like forever. What about you, my dear? Any prospects in sight?"
The prince rolled his dark eyes heavenward. "The landscape's littered with willing damsels and every weekend Corey comes up with a fresh batch. I think she considers my bachelor status an affront."
"That's only because she and Julian are so happy."
"And doing their best to repopulate the planet single-handed. At least this one's not going to be twins. The only question is which of you is going to pop first."
Too late, he saw Galia's wince. "I'm sorry. I didn't think. Forgive me, Galia. These days--"
"Oh, Cassius. It's all right. You've enough memories of your own without having to worry about mine."
Pushing open the door, she motioned him into the coolness of the house. "Speaking of His Imperialness, what's he been up to lately? Up here in our Northern Shore aerie, we hear little or nothing about the doings at Court."
"He's being his usual pleasant self, albeit a mite bored. Things have been on such an even keel lately, he's becoming concerned. You know our Julian. He never could stand prosperity for long."
Cassius was right about one thing.
His august half-brother was bored. As short as his brother was tall and as mercurial as Cassius was calm, the energetic silver blond Emperor thrived on challenge. It had been seven months since he and his small band of defenders had retaken Nublis from the pirates who had invaded and occupied their planet so summarily. The last of the InterPlanetary Synod and Trade League military fleets had left and the spaceport, the Parliament and the Empire's green-spired capital city of Cyrenia were finally returning to their normal routines.
Julian would never have believed he'd miss his daily battle of wits with Ethan, but he did. He liked to think he and Galia were still friends but never in his wildest dreams would he have anticipated the direction her life had taken. Unexpectedly pregnant by Ethan, she'd found refuge with Aaron Fortier, his former Captain of the Imperial Guard and despite the twenty-five-year difference in their ages, the two appeared deeply in love.
Corey's latest pregnancy had also been unanticipated and the tiny Empress waxed increasingly cranky as the summer wore on. The twins were teething and much as he loved his children, Julian had lately been avoiding his wife's crowded apartments, and since Cassius was visiting Galia and Aaron on the Northern Shore, there was no one to talk to. To relieve the tedium, he decided to take a weekend trip to the Sacred Mountain and go camping with the Mountain Scouts, that indomitable group of bush pilots who policed Nublis' rugged backcountry.
To his delight, his new flyer was even faster than the old one. After strapping himself in, he agreed with his bodyguard, Malachi, that it was an absolutely beautiful day and began his preflight checks with the tower. The moment the clearance signal chimed, he hit the booster switch. As the thrusters kicked in, the craft gave a slight shudder and he made a mental note to have Maintenance check it.
The flyer rose steeply from the roof.
When they reached the top of the climb, Julian switched off the thrusters. He went to level out and bank his craft toward the river but nothing happened. He flipped the compensation switches with no response, then the indicators all dropped to zero. Cursing, he grabbed the emergency communicator. "Imperial One to Tower."
"Tower here, Imperial One."
"I'm in a climb and can't level out. Have lost all power to the controls. Yoke's not responding. Manual override's not responding. Am attempting a re-land."
Before the Tower could answer, the tiny craft stalled.
After hanging suspended for what seemed like an eternity, it began cartwheeling slowly downward in wider and wider arcs. Missing the palace roof by just a few feet, the flyer landed upside down in the great square with a thundering crash, skidding to rest against the palace's white marble steps.
Amid buckling metal and crunching glass, the craft's wounded hydraulics hissed and bled into the waiting stone and the electric motors whispered into silence.
Julian turned his head back and forth a couple of times and flexed his arms. Unsnapping his harness, he reached for the co-pilot's seat.
"Malachi. Are you okay? Say something." He found his bodyguard's arm and was feeling for a pulse when he heard something above his head.
"Your Majesty, are you all right?"
"I think so but Malachi's not saying anything."
"We'll have you out in a moment. Are you in any pain?"
"I seem to be okay but I can't move my legs. Something's got them pinned down and it's pitch dark in here."
"Don't move. You're upside down and what you're hearing is the cutter. We're peeling away the wall next to your seat. Now can you see?"
Julian blinked and knuckled his eyes. "It's still dark."
"We're going to pull away the wall now. Is your harness fastened?"
"No, but something's holding me in the seat. You need to check Malachi. I can't find a pulse." He heard more voices and felt the craft give as someone climbed in.
A hand touched his shoulder. "Your Majesty? Hey. Bring that cutter over here. All right, we're getting the console loose. That's what's holding you in the seat. I'm putting a support board underneath you. Just let yourself fall. Hold your arms to your sides and let me put this strap.... Okay, he's secure. Let's get him out, stat."
This is ridiculous. Why don't they just let me climb out? "What about Malachi?"
"We're getting him out. Open your eyes and tell me what you see."
"I keep telling you, nothing. If you want me to look at something, dammit, why don't you turn on a friggin' light?"
"It's broad daylight, Your Majesty, and I've been shining a light in your eyes for the past five minutes."
One of the voices outside Julian's door was Corey's and the other belonged to Doctor Polycarp.
It had been three days and the man sounded frustrated. "We can't find any physical reason for it, Your Majesty. We've had two neurologists in to look at him and an eye specialist is on his way from Aretz. We haven't told him he may never walk again and don't plan to as long as he's still in the cast. It'll be coming off in three or four weeks."
Corey blushed. "I don't know if this is an appropriate question, Doctor, but we have a very physical relationship. What about that?"
Polycarp smiled faintly. "It's a very appropriate question, Your Majesty, and your concern is understandable. There are certain things we can do but how much will depend on the extent of the paralysis."
"At least he isn't in any pain and he's been very good about cooperating with the therapist and maintaining his upper body strength."
"There's one way we can help with the blindness. A voice-activated computer should be here tomorrow. It features a probe that feeds images from a special camera directly into the brain. If he wants to read or write, it'll translate text into speech and vice versa. He says he's been neglecting his music and I've suggested he start working on his keyboards."
"I'll have them sent over. Has he complained about the food?"
"As a matter of fact, he has. He was very uncomplimentary about his breakfast this morning."
"That's a good sign. He's been so docile since the accident, he's had me worried. I'll go on in. If I know him, he's looking for me and wondering why I'm late."
Julian already knew there was something direly wrong with his legs. When he pounded on the cast with his fist above the fracture site, it should have hurt like hell. But it didn't. From something the doctor said, he knew his feet and toes were sticking out of the cast but he couldn't move or feel them either. In fact, from his waist down, he couldn't feel a damn thing. Corey's silk dress rustled and a slight click told him she was wearing her emeralds. The chair's legs squeaked against the floor as she pulled it close to the bed.
He took in a deep breath and savored the scent of her. When he felt her breath's warmth, he wound his fingers in her hair. Pulling her face close, he put his arms around her neck and gave her a long kiss. Finally he released her and laid his head back on the pillows.
"Did you sleep?"
"After they gave me something. When I awoke, I heard birdsong and assumed it was morning."
"Your breakfast wasn't to your liking?"
"That wasn't food. It was an impostor and a rotten one at that. Did you ask when I can get a proper meal instead of this gluey stuff? It's mushy, has absolutely no flavor and most of the time it's lukewarm. Yecch."
Corey sighed. "It's got something to do with your digestive tract. As soon as it's working properly, you can have solids again."
"Are you saying I'm not functioning down there?"
"According to Doctor Polycarp, you're eliminating everything just fine. Because they want to keep it that way, they've got you on this special diet. They're going to take the cast off in a couple of weeks and that's probably when they'll start giving you regular food."
"Corey, my love, you've never lied to me, so don't start now. When they remove the casts, my legs still aren't going to work are they? There's a pretty good chance nothing else down there will either. Am I right?"
"Doctor Polycarp didn't tell you because he thought you couldn't handle it."
"What in the hell does he think I am, terminally stupid? When they were pulling me out of the wreck, I heard one of the medics say I was paralyzed and I've had enough scans since then to make a full-length feature film. Day after day, they do something to my feet, then ask me if I can feel it. And Corey, my love, if I'm eliminating anything, it must be automatically. I haven't been handed so much as one bedpan since I've been in here." When she didn't say anything, Julian touched her face. It was wet with tears. "Don't cry, turtledove. The worst moment of my life was when my wretched cousin Titus had me helpless on the ground and told me what he was going to do to you and the twins. Compared to that, this is nothing. Incidentally, Cassius called this morning. After his visit, Polly will be very anxious to send me home. He thinks he and his clinic are safe from practical jokes because I'm in a cast and can't see. Hah."
Remembering Julian's last stay in the clinic, she couldn't help giggling. "What are you going to do?"
"Better you don't know."
"By the way," she said, "Cassius found out what caused your flyer to go out of control. It was a factory defect. Before you even took delivery, there was a whole slew of similar crashes on Aretz with that particular model. When the victims sued the manufacturer, the Aretzan courts found in their favor and ordered a recall. The manufacturer appealed to the Synod, and Chief Justice Veniston overturned the verdict. The important thing is, Malachi's death wasn't your fault."
"That's good to know. I suppose I'd better file suit as soon as possible."
She patted his hand. "I'm way ahead of you and Cassius says he'll do the paperwork. The story is that Justice Veniston went on an all-expense-paid safari with MagnaJet's chairman and got a huge interest-free loan from him right before he made his ruling."
"That's why Malachi's dead and I'm lying here blind and paralyzed? We have to do something about that man and I know where I can get everything I need."
"You have a way of getting at Veniston?"
Julian chuckled. "A personal pipeline to his former partner in crime. Now I know I have to get out of here."
"Your room's ready and waiting, and everything's lined up and ready to go."
"What about food? This glop they're feeding me is making me homicidal."
"Maybe Cassius can come up with something more palatable that'll still be within the doctor's guidelines. Oh. Ooof."
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing. Your son just kicked me and he kicks hard. Do you want to say hello? Put your hand right...."
As Julian felt the new life within Corey, he thought about the fight to come and decided the future might not be so grim after all.
Copyright © 2003 by Kate Saundby